Turkish Election: Winners & Losers

By Alan Makovsky

Assuming the ballots were fairly counted, the winners and losers are…

Biggest winner, of course, is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who defied considerable conventional wisdom and crushed the apparently overblown hopes of his detractors, by cruising to a first-round victory that will allow him to enjoy the powers of the super-Presidency he designed.

Second biggest winner is Devlet Bahceli, whose Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) doubled the vote that the polls predicted (11% instead of 5-6%) and unexpectedly outdistanced the party that broke away from MHP, Meral Aksener’s Iyi Party. MHP now holds the votes that Erdogan is most likely to turn to in order to achieve a Parliamentary majority, if and when he needs one. After the vote, Bahceli boasted that his party will provide the “checks and balances” the system needs. Bahceli does have a bit of leverage now, but he has been a junior partner to Erdogan on every major step the latter has taken since the June 2015 elections; there is no reason to think that will change now. In their platforms, both MHP and AKP advocated a continuation of emergency rule. (Erdogan, under constant attack from the opposition, backed off during the campaign and said he would end emergency rule after the election – a pledge that generally fell on skeptical ears.) Emergency rule grants Erdogan even more power than does the new Presidential system; until it is lifted, he barely needs parliament, other than to extend emergency rule every three months.

Another winner, albeit a slightly disappointed one, is Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The party has never lost a nationwide election. It has now won an unprecedented six straight parliamentary elections, crossing the 40% threshold each of the last five times, also unprecedented. The disappointment is that it failed to win a parliamentary majority, falling six seats short (based on the latest count) – perhaps the reason Erdogan seemed surprisingly glum in the wake of his victory. Still, AKP’s election coalition partner MHP is almost certain to make up the difference when a mere Presidential decree won’t do. Erdogan reportedly doesn’t trust MHP, but he won’t risk an early election to regain his parliamentary majority, since, under the odd rules of the new system, Erdogan’s new Presidential term would come to an abrupt end if another round of elections takes place.

Another winner is the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the Kurdish-dominated party that made it over the 10% threshold required for entry to parliament – thanks to help from Turkish liberals voting tactically, understanding that the only hope for denying AKP a parliamentary majority lay in HDP’s entry to parliament. The effort paid off. AKP, by a small margin, failed to win that majority. Meanwhile, HDP emerges slightly ahead of its two Turkish nationalist rivals, MHP and IYI Party, and will constitute the third largest delegation in Parliament. HDP’s success defied the expectation of many that pro-Erdogan forces would suppress or distort the Kurdish vote sufficiently to ensure an AKP majority in parliament. In fact, it will probably be Exhibit A for those who will argue that the vote count was absolutely fair.

For independence of thought, the nearly 20% of Erdogan voters who marked the parliament portion of their ballot for a party other than AKP are also winners. Erdogan polled 52.6%, AKP 42.6% — a ten-point gap. This election marked Turks’ first experience with voting separately and simultaneously for president and parliament. Those Erdogan voters who forsook AKP refuted the early claims of some observers that Turkish political culture ensured that Turkish voters, particularly those on the right, would never split their ballots. Had there been a center-right party that did not openly oppose Erdogan but rather made clear it would work cooperatively with Erdogan or any other President on an issue-by-issue basis, perhaps more Erdogan voters would have been willing to desert AKP.

A likely winner, even in defeat, is CHP Presidential candidate Muharrem Ince. His impressive performance as a candidate may catapault him to leadership of the main opposition party, the secular Republican People’s Party, a position he has long coveted.

A clear winner is the conventional wisdom that nationalism sells in Turkey. Turkey’s invasion of Afrin and particularly its claims in the closing days of the election campaign that it’s moving against PKK headquarters in the Kandil mountains seems to have boosted Erdogan’s fortunes and contributed to a mood that unexpectedly boosted MHP’s as well.

The biggest loser may have been Meral Aksener, whose ballyhooed candidacy failed to gain traction – in part for reasons beyond her control, such as minimal coverage from the pro-Erdogan and state media – and whose IYI Party surprisingly finished behind the MHP that many thought she would elbow aside as the main voice of the nationalist, secular right.

Other losers include:

  • Turkey’s Western allies and Israel, who are likely to experience continuing problems with Turkey. In his victory speech, Erdogan claimed that coupists and Gulenists had fled to the US, an assertion proven, he suggested, by the fact that the votes of the US-based Turkish diaspora went overwhelmingly to CHP and Ince. (In fact, US-based Turkish expats are heavily Ataturkist and have always voted for the secular opposition.) Since the recent agreement on a Manbij roadmap, Erdogan had largely eschewed rhetorical attacks on the US, but in celebrating his triumph in front of his supporters, he couldn’t resist.
  • Turkey’s ethnically-conscious Kurds, whose joy over HDP’s electoral success is likely to be severely short-lived in the face of a vengeful Erdogan and a heavily nationalist MHP.
  • Turkish democracy, which will likely continue to get battered by Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian mindset and methods, now fully unimpeded by institutional obstacles.
  • The hope of Erdogan’s opponents, who made little to no electoral headway, despite what seemed to be their most spirited effort to date.
  • The conventional wisdom that the economy is the key to winning Turkish elections. Erdogan talked the lira into a short-term free-fall against the dollar last month with off-beat theory that inflation can only be fought by lowering interest rates – and he promised more of the same if he’s re-elected. Dire predictions about the Turkish economy abound. Per capita income has stagnated in Turkey for the past decade. Yet, Erdogan emerged as popular as ever.
  • Pundits like me – well,¬†specifically me¬†– who mistakenly told readers that Erdogan had lost his Midas touch. (But I’ll stand by the claim that the intensity of the anger of the roughly half of Turkey that opposes Erdogan, has never been greater. How that anger is channeled, if at all, remains to be seen.) Apparently, Erdogan’s increasing stumbles matter little to his loyal voters.

If, on the other hand, the vote was staged or otherwise rigged – as some continue to suspect, despite Ince’s gracious concession speech setting aside fraud as a factor — Turkish democracy was again the big loser.

So, rigged or not, democracy took a beating, possibly its final one, in Turkey. In the past, Erdogan and his AKP cohorts liked to claim that their electoral victories were celebrated throughout the Muslim world, in Sarajevo, Cairo, Gaza, and elsewhere. Erdogan didn’t make that specific claim this time. Perhaps he realized that this time the major foreign celebrations were taking place among his kindred spirits in Budapest, Warsaw, and Caracas.

Alan Makovsky, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress, and former Senior Professional Staff Member (for Middle East and Turkey) on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.